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Truth the first casualty in BBC's War on Britain's Roads?

Road.cc: Truth the first casualty in BBC's War on Britain's Roads?

Balance and objectivity also reported missing in action as BBC airs controversial documentary

Simon MacMichael, December 6, 2012

BBC One yesterday evening aired its controversial documentary The War on Britain’s Roads. By inaccurately presenting cyclists and motorists as polar opposites in a bid to sensationalise the issue, the broadcaster missed an opportunity to make a constructive contribution to the road safety debate that is being pursued elsewhere – most notably, in the press, led by The Times, and Parliament, due to the efforts of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group with support from cycle campaigners.

Much of the footage will already be familiar to road.cc users, having been widely viewed on sites such as YouTube for several years in some cases. For the vast majority watching, however, it would have been the first time they’d seen it.

Less than a month ago, AA President Edmund King had called for an end to the ‘two tribes’ mentality that polarises the cycle safety debate between cyclists and motorists. If anyone from the programme’s makers, Leopard Films, read his comments, it didn’t show.

There was no acknowledgement that most adult cyclists also drive cars. No hint that millions of motorists also ride bikes. Cyclists and motorists, it appeared, were enemies, as the programme’s title suggests, though even that was misleading – if there was a combat zone anywhere, it was largely on London’s streets.

We already knew, through feedback from those who’d been given the opportunity of previewing the whole show, that it was likely to be a piece of sensationalist programming that deliberately focused on polarised extremes rather than trying to present a balanced picture of the everyday reality of cycling.

In the past days, the BBC was urged to review some of the programme’s content, in particular a segment of six-year-old footage, which as road.cc recently revealed was shot by professional American documentary maker Lucas Brunelle, of alleycat racing through London’s streets. The footage was released commercially as a DVD through his website after originally being posted to YouTube.

In the final version of last night’s documentary, the programme makers mentioned in passing that it reflected “extreme behaviour” – certainly well short of the kind of clarification that had been sought and that use of the footage warranted.

Among those who pressed the BBC to review the content of the documentary, efforts intensifying yeterday as transmission time approached, was Carlton Reid, executive editor of BikeBiz, who in an article on that site catalogues those approaches made to the broadcaster to have the show’s content toned down. Handily, he sets out how you can complain, and provides some of the BBC guidelines the programme is said to have ignored.

We don’t know whether the London cyclist shown weaving in and out of a queue of near-stationary traffic at speed, before aiming for a non-existent gap between a double decker bus and a pick-up truck – it seems a miracle he wasn’t killed – was playing out exactly that kind of alleycat scene in his head. The BBC’s editorial guidelines, citing Ofcom rules, are clear though that reckless behaviour some might be tempted to imitate is out of bounds.

The single most powerful moment in the programme was also the one that gave its makers the opportunity to explore, briefly and inadequately, the road safety angle without resorting to sensationalising it.

Stop-frame CCTV footage showed the moment when cyclist Alex Barlow was killed by a cement mixer on London Wall in 2002. It was chilling viewing. The programme focused on the efforts of her mother, Cynthia, who had given permission for that footage to be used, to improve lorry safety, beginning with the company that owned the truck that had killed her daughter. Those segments gave a glimpse of what the programme could have been.

A surprising moment came at the end, when a taxi driver of five decades’ standing, who during the programme had pointed out various pieces of misbehaviour by cyclists such as jumping red light, revealed that he had actually come to realise just how vulnerable cyclists are on the city’s streets after his own grandson lost his life.

That vulnerability was clearly shown in the helmetcam footage provided by the likes of Cyclegaz, Magnatom and Traffic Droid, who have each developed a strong following among cyclists on YouTube, with near miss after near miss shown.

But constant references to cyclists ‘taking matters into their own hands’ made it sound as though it was the bike riders themselves who were doing something wrong.

Also lost was the reason why the likes of Cyclegaz perhaps come across as a bit shouty – any rider who has had a large vehicle pass that close to them, where a couple of inches nearer could result in serious injury or worse, will have experienced that rush of adrenalin mixed with shock and fear.

Pedestrians - whose casualty numbers far exceed those of cyclists, with more than four times as many killed last year in rioad traffic incidents, itself a 12 per cent increase on 2010 - were hardly acknowledged, other than one woman shown being hit from behind by a bicycle on a shared use path when without looking, she suddenly moved sideways and into the path of the cyclist who had changed direction to go round her.

By pure coincidence, the programme that preceded War on Britain’s Roads, an episode of the documentary series Supersized Earth contained a segment about a London bike courier called James. No footage of him weaving in and out of traffic, no angry encounters with motorists.

In fact, the only thing anyone could begrudge him was the fact that due to the 50 or 60 miles he reckons he puts in on a typical day, he can eat like a horse without putting any weight on. Cyclists, eh?